The holidays reconnect us with our roots through the recipes and traditions we’ve passed down and held close. We sat down with four Charleston chefs who told us about their fondest memories, and how they keep the spirit of the season alive today.
Culinary Institute of Charleston
My family’s traditions definitely stem from food, especially now that they have a chef in the family. Coming home to New Jersey from Charleston is always a great thing for them because I get kind of pushed into the kitchen even though sometimes I don’t want to. It gives me the opportunity to prepare food that they may not be as familiar with. My grandmother is from the South, so we did grow up with grits, but it was more like fish and grits instead of shrimp. Or she’d make these really beautiful meatballs and this really nice pan gravy and serve it with grits. We usually would eat that on Christmas morning before we’d have our Christmas dinner.
I come home and make all the favorites we’d always eat like my grandmother’s macaroni and cheese and greens. She’s always big on having more than one protein so we’d have turkey, roast beef, ham, even capon. My grandmother makes her cornbread stuffing, a couple of cakes, and she always makes sweet potato pie specifically for me because that’s my favorite.
Before I went off to culinary school and became a chef, my grandmother did a lot of the cooking. She gave me the love of food. Without her, I don’t think I would’ve become the chef that I am. She’s a lot older now so she doesn’t cook as much as she used to, so when she does, it’s a great occasion for me.
In the Philippines, Christmas is really a big celebration. Once September 1 hits, everybody starts decorating like crazy — when Anthony Bourdain went there for one of his last episodes, he mentioned how crazy Filipinos are because we start at the beginning of September. And then at Christmas we have a big tradition of doing a roast pig which is called lechón. We do a kamayan dinner where everybody sits at a long table with banana leaves and all the food on top of the table, and it’s just a big celebration. You gather and eat with your hands, and the centerpiece is always lechón.
We have traditions like having 12 round fruits at the table. There’s one for every month. My aunt says they welcome prosperity and symbolize coins. We make adobo and lumpia. Sweet spaghetti should be on the table. Sweet spaghetti is made with banana ketchup instead of tomato sauce. It has hot dogs in it too.
It’s pretty similar here when it comes to decorations, but in the Philippines, it’s crazy aggressive. Everything is lit up. It’s very beautiful. It’s why I miss going home at Christmas. All the streets have Christmas lights everywhere. The Philippines is a very poor country, but when we celebrate Christmas, everyone goes off the charts. We’re a very happy people there.
And then on New Year’s once midnight hits, everyone jumps at the same time. Old people say you’ll get a little bit taller when you do that, but it didn’t happen to me. I’m still short.
I’m Jewish so usually we would make latkes and light the candles and sing the prayers, so I’ve kind of carried that over here to Cru Cafe. Every year at sundown, I’ll light the candles in front of the mantle even if there are customers sitting there, and everyone will gather around and listen to me sing the prayers. And every year I try to go to the festival of lights. Even though I’m Jewish, I still love the lights because they’re gorgeous.
My mom usually did the cooking. My mom and dad both made the latkes together with applesauce and sour cream. For eight days straight, we’d do the same thing — light the candles, say the prayer over the bread and the wine, sing the song, and then have dinner. Afterwards, we were allowed to open one present.
I enjoy the holidays mainly with my friends now. My friend has a Christmas party every year, and we do one of those white elephant gift exchanges. We have a holiday party every year at Cru Cafe and Secret Santa is really big. It’s really good here at the restaurant too because a lot of people can’t afford gifts, so some of us will give gifts for their kids so they can have more presents during the holidays. It’s like a big pot luck. Since we’re all chefs and in the food and beverage industry, everybody brings something to the table.
Leila and Italo Marino
Embers and Ashes
Italo: For Thanksgiving and Christmas, my family always did lasagna growing up. We didn’t do turkey or goose or anything like that. My family’s a big, stereotypical Italian family. We’re loud. We eat a lot. We didn’t do cookies and milk for Santa. We always did cannoli and sambuca. That’s a fun one. My brother and my sister have kept that alive with their kids, and now that we’re going to have a kid pretty soon, we’ll do the same thing.
Leila: I was born and lived in Germany for the first 10 years of my life, and we always did a somewhat traditional German Christmas. We would make either roasted turkey or goose, and then we’d do something similar to what we do for Thanksgiving here now and have the drippings from the goose or turkey to make a really nice gravy or au jus, mashed potatoes of some sort, red cabbage, Brussels sprouts. We would always make these Christmas cookies from a recipe book that my mom has from my great-great-grandmother, I believe, so it’s from the 1800s and is written in German. And we always celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve because that’s traditional in Germany.
Italo: We always did the big Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner on Christmas Eve. We’d go to my great uncle’s house, and the entire family would be there. We’d have a huge Italian spread of calamari and shrimp and octopus and different fish. We’d have easily 50 people there. I used to go over to my grandmother’s house a lot as a kid to bake the pies and cookies and everything for the whole family for Christmas. Around the holidays, we’d bake hundreds and hundreds of cookies.
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